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How The Right Self-Care Rituals Can Help Regulate Your Autonomic Nervous System

Feb 3, 2020

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This might just be one of my favorite blog posts to date! I met Kelly last year and was instantly drawn to her encouraging and calming personality…oh and her knowledge and desire to impact women is incredible!

Kelly is the beauty and brains behind Ritual Care where she encourages no fluff, no ‘cliche’, science based approach to self care for moms! Kelly understands what it’s like to be in your shoes, but also how to help support the body from a holistic perspective! She’s your cheerleader and I am SO excited for her to teach and encourage you all today.

Welcome sweet Kelly!

Connect with Kelly: Ritual Care | Instagram

How The Right Self-Care Rituals Can Help Regulate Your Autonomic Nervous System

No matter how consciously we live, we’ve all got moments when we’re stressed. And I don’t mean the coffee spilled and the morning was annoying. I mean the coffee spilled and you fall into a full-blown ugly cry because everything feels oh just so hard lately. No matter what level of challenge you’re facing, there’s one trick that can help you stay on track: creating rituals that serve your highest health and wellness needs.

I’ve been studying and teaching self-care rituals for over a decade, and the results still blow me away. I’ve seen a mom make it through a difficult medical diagnosis, another got through her newborn’s 3 months’ stay in the NICU. One woman survived a painful divorce, and another said her rituals helped save her marriage. Mothers around the world use care rituals during the postpartum years, and there’s no better way to manage the stress of the early years of motherhood.

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What is a ritual…and why are they magical?

But, what exactly IS a care ritual? While the word “ritual,” has many different meanings, I define “care ritual” simply: healthy habits, done consciously. That means you’re intuitively deciding what to do, you’ve got some degree of awareness around it, right in the moment, and you’re doing it on a regular basis. This is key, because when your self-care is a routine practice — and not always a last resort for burnout — magic happens. You create a rhythm, and it helps everything flow.

When you create care rituals, you not only get relief from everyday stressors that happen in life, you also build resilience that grounds you when the going gets rough. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a new baby, a new job, a move, a medical concern, or another change — your care is the key to making your way through anything with as much grace (and as little pain) as possible.

What if rituals feel a little too…woo-woo?

Rituals are founded in intuitive wisdom. They must come from you, because they’re for you. But this isn’t just some fluffy, feel-good stuff. Self-care rituals are also supported by brain science. Specifically, the right care rituals help regulate your autonomic nervous system — the branch of your neuroanatomy that’s a major player for involuntary functions like digestion, heart and respiratory rate, sexual arousal, and your body’s overall stress response. Your autonomic nervous system branches off into two further sections called the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system.

Exploring 3 states of the autonomic nervous system

Your parasympathetic nervous system is a bit like a “brake pedal.” It’s controlled by a spectacular cranial nerve that wanders throughout your body, called the vagus nerve (in fact, “vagus” means “wanderer”). When the parasympathetic system turns on, your body slows down. Most commonly, this system is known for keeping you in an ideal, relaxed state, and helping you engage in “safe and social” behavior — which means you can connect with others. This is sometimes called  “ventral vagal.”  Care rituals are instrumental in helping you stay in and return to this state. 

In contrast, your sympathetic nervous system is like a “gas pedal” for your body. It’s responsible for speeding you up when your body senses danger, to help you assess and respond (and this happens before your brain even processes it!). Your sympathetic system is famous for the “fight or flight” stress response — causing you to feel aggression, or a strong urge to move. So, when you get an annoying text message — or your toddler screams — your sympathetic nervous system turns on to help you respond ASAP! It circulates stress hormones throughout your body, like cortisol and adrenaline. 

When you need to react to something, your sympathetic system is right there – helping you get through it!  But under chronic stress, this is extremely taxing, and results in problems like adrenal fatigue. The body simply can’t sustain a high level of stress response internally, and maintain optimal nervous system function — and that’s when you end up feeling numb, checked out, paralyzed. 

According to Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, this happens when you can’t escape the stressor. You can’t fight it, or flee from it. You are stuck and immobilized, while your body floods with danger cues. Your parasympathetic system enters the picture to start slowing things down… but it doesn’t feel relaxing. It slows you down all the way to the most primitive stress response — “freezing.” This called a “dorsal vagal” state ( I call it the “emotional flu”), and it is now believed to help explain why we seem to not respond or “give  up” in a traumatic situation. Essentially, your nervous system collapses. This helps you conserve energy…and survive the stressor. Gentle self-care rituals are the key to helping your nervous system rise out of this state of collapse when it’s time, right back to feeling “safe and social.”

In summary, when you’re stressed — for instance, during huge transitions — your nervous system is always trying to take care of you by moving through your different systems. In a neutral, happy state, you rest in a safe-and-social ventral vagal state. When enough stress accumulates to bump you out of it, you move into a fight-or-flight sympathetic state in order to act. But if the stress builds and you can’t respond, your body moves into a dorsal vagal state and freezes, in the interest of survival. 

5 care rituals to try today

That doesn’t mean that you just sit around and wait for your nervous system to figure it out, though. You can help yourself move through stressful moments — and your 3 nervous system states — with your rituals. The right rituals encourage feelings of comfort and safety that help you access your happy place (in “ventral vagal”).

Here are 5 of my favorite rituals to help you feel more grounded (and help your nervous system feel safer) during upheaval: 

  1. Deep Breathing Ritual :: Breathing exercise (sometimes called pranayama) is a classic self-care strategy, and for good reason. Deep, slow belly breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system to “apply a brake” to your body’s sympathetic stress response and return to a more relaxed ventral vagal state. Try 3 slow conscious breaths to before you get out of bed, and 3 more just before you sleep.
  2. 60-Second Yoga Ritual :: You don’t have to do a full yoga class — even one pose can help! Choose a power pose, like Warrior or Mountain, to trick your body into feeling more confident. Or pick one like Child’s Pose to feel more comfort and connected. Practicing a strenuous pose, like Plank or Goddess, is also a great way to bust through unhelpful mental patterns. Whatever pose you choose, hold it and breathe deeply for 60 seconds.
  3. Quick Mantra Ritual :: Close your eyes, locate whatever you’re feeling in your physical body, and repeat your favorite soothing mantra or affirmation.
  4. Limb Wiggle Ritual :: This one is super for kids and parents, alike! When stressed, just wiggle your toes, fingers, arms or legs. It helps you move out of your head, get back into your body — where the stress is really held — and release it!
  5. Evening Wind-Down Ritual :: Choose 3 calming things to do before sleep. Personally, I love a facial oil cleanse, warm shower, and slathering on skin cream. Evening rituals are wonderful for moms (and other busy humans) because you can always make time for them, and they help promote restful sleep.

Keep rituals soothing and simple for best results

There are so many ways to practice ritual — and as you can see, they don’t need to be fancy or cost any money. Pure care rituals are not always Instagram-worthy. And they certainly aren’t quick-fix cure-alls. No such thing. 

Your self-care comes from your intuitive connection, and an awareness of your nervous system state. It’s a reflection of the relationship you have with yourself — and all relationships take quality time and effort. But it is so worth the investment. When you show up for yourself, consciously and consistently, that is when your rituals give you the most amazing return.

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